Robert Claude (Bob) HAY DFC and Bar

Poppy

HAY, Robert Claude

Service Number: 407074
Enlisted: 27 May 1940, Adelaide
Last Rank: Flight Lieutenant
Last Unit: No. 617 Squadron (RAF)
Born: Renmark, South Australia, 4 November 1913
Home Town: Renmark, Renmark Paringa, South Australia
Schooling: Renmark West Church of England School, Renmark West Primary School, Renmark High School, Strathalbyn High School & Roseworthy Agricultural College, South Australia
Occupation: Teacher / Lecturer Roseworthy College SA
Died: Killed by flak over the target - Antheor Viaduct raid, Antheor, southern France, 13 February 1944, aged 30 years
Cemetery: Cagliari (St. Michele) Communal Cemetery Cagliari Italy
Memorials: Adelaide Pathway of Honour - SA Dambusters Raid WW2 Memorial, Adelaide WW2 Wall of Remembrance, Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, International Bomber Command Centre Memorial
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World War 2 Service

27 May 1940: Enlisted Royal Australian Air Force, Aircraftman 2 (WW2), SN 407074, Adelaide
24 Jun 1940: Promoted Royal Australian Air Force, Leading Aircraftman, No. 1 Initial Training School
27 Jun 1940: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Leading Aircraftman, SN 407074, No. 2 Elementary Flying Training School (2EFTS), Empire Air Training Scheme
26 Aug 1940: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Leading Aircraftman, SN 407074, No. 2 Service Flying Training School
12 Oct 1940: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Leading Aircraftman, SN 407074, No. 2 Initial Training School
29 Nov 1940: Embarked Royal Australian Air Force, Aircraftman 2 (WW2), SN 407074, 2 Embarkation Depot, Embarked for Canada
24 Dec 1940: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Leading Aircraftman, SN 407074, Royal Canadian Airforce Training Units, Empire Air Training Scheme
16 Mar 1941: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Leading Aircraftman, SN 407074, Royal Canadian Airforce Training Units, Empire Air Training Scheme
28 Apr 1941: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Leading Aircraftman, Royal Canadian Airforce Training Units
28 Apr 1941: Promoted Royal Australian Air Force, Sergeant
29 Apr 1941: Transferred Royal Australian Air Force, Sergeant, Royal Canadian Airforce Training Units, 1 Air Navigation School, Rivers, Manitoba
23 Jul 1941: Promoted Royal Australian Air Force, Pilot Officer
8 Aug 1941: Embarked Royal Australian Air Force, Pilot Officer, SN 407074, Operational Training Units (RAF), Canada to the UK
9 Aug 1941: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Pilot Officer, SN 407074, Aircrew Holding Units (RAF), Empire Air Training Scheme
23 Aug 1941: Involvement Royal Air Force (WW2), SN 407074, Operational Training Units (RAF), Empire Air Training Scheme
26 Dec 1941: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Pilot Officer, SN 407074, No. 455 Squadron (RAAF), Air War NW Europe 1939-45
23 Jan 1942: Promoted Royal Australian Air Force, Flying Officer, No. 455 Squadron (RAAF)
24 Apr 1942: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Flying Officer, SN 407074, No. 50 Squadron (RAF), Air War NW Europe 1939-45
12 Oct 1942: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Flying Officer, SN 407074, RAF Headquarters Units, Air War NW Europe 1939-45
20 Oct 1942: Honoured Distinguished Flying Cross, Air War NW Europe 1939-45, “One night in August, 1942, this officer, as navigator of an aircraft, was detailed to execute a special bombing sortie. In spite of difficulties, he accomplished his task successfully and brought back excellent photographs. Flying Officer Hay has completed many sorties and he has always displayed great skill and determination to make every mission a success. His outstanding operational efficiency and devotion to duty have set a fine example.”
25 Feb 1943: Promoted Royal Australian Air Force, Acting Flight Lieutenant
26 Mar 1943: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Acting Flight Lieutenant, SN 407074, No. 617 Squadron (RAF), Air War NW Europe 1939-45
16 May 1943: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Acting Flight Lieutenant, SN 407074, No. 617 Squadron (RAF), Air War NW Europe 1939-45
19 May 1943: Honoured Distinguished Flying Cross and bar, Air War NW Europe 1939-45, Operation Chastise - 'The Dams Raid'
23 Jul 1943: Promoted Royal Australian Air Force, Flight Lieutenant, No. 617 Squadron (RAF)
13 Feb 1944: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Flight Lieutenant, SN 407074, No. 617 Squadron (RAF), Air War NW Europe 1939-45

Help us honour Robert Claude Hay's service by contributing information, stories, and images so that they can be preserved for future generations.

Biography contributed by Mal Young

Robert Claude (“Bob”) Hay was born in Renmark, South Australia, on the 4th of November 1913, the second of the six children of John Robert Clare and Margaret Kate (nee Olorenshore) Hay. He grew up on his parents’ fruit block at Settlers Bend, Renmark South. Bob attended the Church of England Renmark West School, switching in 1923 to Renmark West Primary School. In his first year there, aged 9, his father died.

Bob did his first two years of secondary schooling at Renmark High School in 1926-1927. In February 1927 his mother re-married. At the end of that year she and her family moved to Bull’s Creek with her new husband, who tried his hand at farming there. Bob was enrolled at Strathalbyn High School for 1928 and 1929 to complete his secondary education.

Having gained his Leaving Certificate, Bob joined the Post-Master-General’s Department as a Junior Mechanic-in-training at the Adelaide G.P.O. However, he resigned from the PMG to enrol in the Diploma in Agriculture course at Roseworthy College, north of Adelaide, in 1932. He distinguished himself at Roseworthy, graduating with the Roseworthy Diploma in Agriculture in 1935. He was awarded the College’s gold medal as Dux of his course and also the Old Students’ Cup for achieving the highest aggregate in Agriculture and Animal Husbandry. In addition, he excelled in swimming, winning several cups and medals. In 1983 the College swimming pool was named in his honour.

Following his graduation Bob gained employment with the Queensland Department of Agriculture as an Agricultural Field Assistant. He was posted to the Bileola Cotton Research Station to work on cotton crops. While there he met Honoria Edna Millicent (“Edna”) Thomson, the daughter of William and Norah Thomson, who farmed in the local district. Bob and Edna were married in Bileola on the 4th of January 1938.

They soon moved to South Australia where in May 1938 Bob was appointed to the staff of his former college, Roseworthy, as Assistant Horticulturalist. They lived in Gawler, the nearest good-sized town to Roseworthy. Their daughter, Denise Clare Hay, was born at the Hutchinson Hospital, Gawler, later that year.

Bob enlisted in the R.A.A.F. in Adelaide on the 27th of May 1940. He was selected for pilot training but did not complete the course at No. 2 Service Flying Training School, Wagga Wagga, NSW. He was consequently re-assigned (‘re-mustered’) to train as an Observer.

For this purpose, he sailed from Sydney to Canada in November 1940. Bob successfully completed courses at the Air Observers School, Edmonton, Alberta, and at the Bombing and Gunnery School, MacDonald, Manitoba. He was awarded his Air Observers Badge and promoted to the rank of Sergeant, R.A.A.F., on 28th April 1941.

After completing his navigator training Bob was promoted to the rank of Pilot Officer on the 23rd of July. He flew from Halifax, Canada, to England on 8th August 1941. Once there, he proceeded to an Operational Training Unit and was then posted to No. 455 Squadron, RAAF, on 26 Dec 1941. No. 455 Squadron was equipped with Handley Page Hampden bombers.

In April 1942 the squadron was transferred to Coastal Command and its role changed. Prior to that transfer, three aircraft crews, including Bob’s, were posted to 50 Squadron R.A.F. The captain of one of the other crews which moved to 50 Squadron was Fl. Lt. H. B. (“Mick”) Martin, with whom Bob would later fly at 617 Squadron. 50 Squadron was equipped with Manchester bombers, but in July 1942 the squadron began converting to the new Lancaster.

Bob completed his first “tour” of operations in October 1942. He had flown a total of 34 operations with 455 and 50 Squadrons at a time when only a fraction of crews survived the 30 operations required for a tour. Bob was posted to the Headquarters of No. 5 Group, R.A.F. A few days after he arrived there the award of his Distinguished Flying Cross was gazetted. The citation read, “One night in August 1942, this officer, as navigator of an aircraft, was detailed to execute a special bombing sortie. In spite of difficulties, he accomplished his task successfully and brought back excellent photographs. Flying Officer Hay has completed many sorties and he has always displayed great skill and determination to make every mission a success. His outstanding operational efficiency and devotion to duty have set a fine example.”1 Bob wrote a letter to the Principal of Roseworthy Agricultural College in which he said that while at 5 Group Headquarters he underwent specialised training. On 25 Feb 1943 Bob was awarded the acting rank of Flight Lieutenant, R.A.A.F.

On 26 Mar 1943 Bob was posted to Coningsby air station, where a few days later No. 617 (“The Dam Busters”) Squadron was formed. Bob was appointed Bomber Leader of the new squadron by its commanding officer, Wing Commander Guy Gibson. This meant it was his task to train all the other bomb aimers for the special operation for which the squadron had been formed – to breach the Ruhr dams. Bob joined the crew of Fl. Lt. “Mick” Martin as its bomb aimer. As he was 29 years old, he copped good-natured ribbing from the other crew members as “the father of the squadron”. That tells us something about the age of most of the aircrew.

The squadron began intense training on 31 March. This involved very low flying, at a height of only a few hundred feet, both by day and by night. On the 11th April, Bob and Gibson flew to the south coast of England to observe the first trials of Barnes Wallis’ new weapon, the “bouncing bomb”, code-named ‘Upkeep’, which would be used on the Dams raid. The test was at Reculver Bay, near Margate. It did not go smoothly! The wooden casing on the weapon broke up when it struck the water and the spout of spray the weapon threw up damaged the elevator of the bomber which dropped it. Enough was learnt to modify the ‘Upkeep’ so that it became effective. It was also determined that it would have to be dropped from a height of just 60 feet (18.3 metres) with the Lancasters flying at 200 mph (320 km/hr). This experience of the trial meant that Bob knew more than any other 617 Squadron member except for Guy Gibson himself about what the mission was.

On the 15th of May Gibson called a meeting of just four members of the squadron at the station commander’s house. The four were Bob, the two flight commanders, Sqn Ldr H. M. Young and Sqn Ldr H. E. Maudsley, and Fl. Lt J. V. Hopgood, the pilot Gibson considered the most skilled on the squadron and whom he had chosen to bomb second after himself. At the meeting Gibson briefed the other four on the Dams targets. The fact of this meeting caused a great stir among the rest of the 133 aircrew as they realised something “big” was up! Later in the day all the pilots and navigators were briefed, but the rest of the crews did not learn of the targets until the full squadron briefing the next morning, the day of the attack.

On that Sunday afternoon the ‘Upkeeps’ were hoisted into place and fitted to the motors which would rotate them at high speed so that they bounced when they hit the water. The crew of P ‘Popsie’, Martin’s aircraft, were all on their plane checking their equipment when something malfunctioned and their ‘Upkeep’ fell to the ground. Bob realised that this might cause a disaster – the weapon could have fused itself as a result of the impact and it might explode. He shouted an urgent warning and all the crew jumped out of the aircraft and took off. Fortunately, the weapon did not explode. It was later hoisted back into place, but it appears that it had been damaged. When it was dropped, it did not run straight, but veered to one side and missed the aiming point.

At 9.40 pm the first three aircraft in the first wave – Gibson, Hopgood and Martin – took off. It was Bob’s job to assist the navigator and pilot as they flew low over enemy territory by looking out for landmarks and giving warning of hazards such as high-tension electricity lines and their pylons. These three aircraft successfully reached the Mohne Dam, but a number of others were shot down, crashed, or were damaged and had to turn back.

Gibson made the first attack and dropped his ‘Upkeep’ accurately. Hopgood followed. His aircraft was hit by flak, caught fire and the weapon was dropped too late. It bounced over the dam wall and exploded causing further damage the aircraft, which blew up. Only two of the seven crew were able to bale out. Martin was next. They dropped their ‘Upkeep’ accurately but as mentioned, it veered off-line. The dam was breached by the fifth weapon to be dropped. Gibson released the aircraft which had bombed to fly home while he took the three remaining aircraft on to attack the Eder Dam, which was also breached. As a result, P ‘Popsie’ was one of the first aircraft to touch down back at base. Only 11 of the 19 aircraft despatched returned. 53 of the 56 aircrew in the downed planes died.

Martin’s rear gunner, Tom (“Tammy”) Simpson wrote in his book “Lower Than Low”, “The skill of Mick (Martin) and bomb aimer Bob (Hay), the top liners on the squadron in their respective fields, operating under most difficult conditions, cannot be adequately described.”

Bob Hay was awarded a Bar to His D.F.C. for his role in the preparation and execution of the Dams raid. It was presented by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, the wife of King George VI, at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace on June 22nd. Bob and a number of other members of Martin’s crew were photographed together after receiving their awards. On 23 July 1943 he was promoted to the rank of substantive Flight Lieutenant.

617 Squadron had been formed for the express purpose of attacking the Ruhr dams. Now Bomber Command made the decision to retain it as a specialised precision bombing squadron when the rest of the Command relied on area bombing to try to take out targets that could not be hit with accuracy. Very advanced bombsights, the Stabilized Automatic Bomb Sight, were fitted to their aircraft. In conjunction with Sqn Ldr Richardson from Bomber Command Headquarters, Bob trained the pilots, navigators and bomb aimers of the squadron in their use. The intention was to use them to drop Wallis’ new bomb, the 12,000 lb Tallboy, very accurately from 15,000 to 20,000 feet when it became available. The squadron achieved an average error of less than one hundred metres on the bombing range, which was considered exceptional, and would enable the Tallboy to destroy any target at which it was aimed. Bob himself set the standard with an average deviation of just 58.5 metres!

Bob was therefore called upon to write an article for the 5 Group’s internal newsletter, 5 Group News, in order to spread the word amongst other squadrons in the group. Here is a short extract from the article:

“The excellent results gained by crews of 617 Squadron using the S.A.B.S. have only been achieved by the fullest, most practical use of the ‘bombing team’ [Pilot, navigator and bomb aimer]. Before any bombs are dropped, some 4 hours training on the specially adapted A.M.B.T. are carried out by the pilot and air bomber to give manipulation practise to the latter and to familiarise the pilot with the B.D.I. (Bombing Direction Indicator). The navigator is trained to carry out computation of true height and airspeed, and settings for a given course of attack with the instruments and computers at his disposal. Some 2-4 hours are then spent in the air doing ‘dummy runs’, firstly on objects ‘on track’, then choosing targets and ‘turning on’, and finally on to targets and setting up sight in accordance with settings computed from known navigational data. The sight is only accurate when correct height above target is set. Thus the pilot must fly at the indicated height he states he will be at, the navigator must correctly compute this to the true height above target, and the air bomber set this accurately.”2

Unfortunately, Bob was not to survive long enough to get the credit he deserved for the squadron’s adoption of the new technology. On 12th February 1944 the Squadron was tasked to attack the Antheor railway viaduct in southern France. Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire, the new C.O., and Mick Martin were to mark the target with flares and then to join the other aircraft in dropping their bombs. Both Cheshire and Martin had difficulty sighting the target because of fog. Martin flew some distance away and then down a valley leading to the viaduct. He realised this gave him and his crew a good view and flew on at very low level. As they approached the viaduct, the aircraft was struck in the nose by an anti-aircraft shell which exploded in the ammunition tray beneath the nose. Bob was killed instantly. The flight engineer was wounded in one leg. The aircraft was badly damaged – Martin assessed two engines as being “useless” because their pitch controls had been destroyed. The bomb release equipment had also been destroyed and neither the marker flares nor the bombs – one 4,000 lb and a number of 1,000 lb bombs – could be released.

Martin realised that he could not fly the plane back to base. In conjunction with his navigator he made the decision to fly to the nearest airfield in Allied hands, which was on the island of Sardinia, recently captured by American forces. On the way the navigator found a way to prise the bombs out of the bomb racks using a ruler as they flew over the sea. They landed successfully in spite of the substantial damage to the hydraulic system.

Because they landed on Sardinia, Bob’s body was buried there the following day, in a section of the Cagliari (St Michele) Communal Cemetery which the Americans were using for their own dead. In 1947 his body was exhumed and re-interred in a different section of the same cemetery which had been handed to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

At the 1944 Roseworthy College graduation ceremony the Principal paid this tribute to Bob:

"Only last week we were shocked with the news of the loss of one of the most respected and loved members of the staff. I refer to Flight-Lieut. Robert Claude Hay, D.F.C. and Bar, and Africa Star (sic)3. He was the Gold Medallist for 1935. After serving with the Queensland Department of Agriculture as a Field Officer for two years he returned to the College as Assistant Horticulturist, the position he held when he enlisted in early 1940.

It has been the lot of very few men to do more in the way of active service in this war than Robert Hay. His luck held so well, for so long, that to learn of his last flight was most grievous to us all. Both as a member of the staff and as a student, Bob Hay, with his happy carefree disposition more nearly symbolised the life of an agricultural college student than anyone I've known”4

A memorial to Bob and the two other South Australians who took part in the Dam Buster mission was unveiled at the Parade Ground in Adelaide in 2008.

 

Footnotes:

1.      London Gazette, Number 35750 on page 4541 at position 1, 20 Oct 1942

2.      reproduced at https://sas.raf38group.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=729&p=4868&hilit=Flt+Lt+Hay#p4868, accessed 13 Sep 2021

3.      this is an error. Bob Hay was not awarded the Africa Star, though such is mentioned in several publications

4.      Roseworthy Principal’s address, The Student [Magazine of the Roseworthy Agricultural College] Vol 40 No 1, page 16

References:

Brickhill, Paul “The Dam Busters”, Evans Brothers 1951

Burgess, Colin “Australia’s Dambusters”, Simon and Schuster Australia 2003

Cooper, Alan “The Men Who Breached the Dams”, William Kimber & Co Ltd 1982

Simpson, Tom “Lower Than Low”, Libra Books Ltd 1995

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